Estimated reading time:13 minutes, 47 seconds
Everyone has a story. Goodbye to artist, thinker and champion allotment gardener Jack Rickards who is moving with his wife Lucy, also a painter and skilled potter, to Cornwall. Interview by Nicola Baird
âIt will be lovely for drawing and painting and Lucy is going to be working with a potter,â says Jack Rickards with that lovely smile of his. After 32 years living off Blackstock Road, plus seasons of gardening know-how picked up and shared as Chair of the Gillespie Park allotments and later the Quill Streetâs 20 allotments, Jack still overflows with optimism. The couple know they will miss Islington, but they have just celebrated their 60thwedding anniversary and are looking forward to another new start close to their Cornish-based son, not far from where Lucy spent her teenage years.
âWeâre going to an 1830s fishermen cottage right down by the quay â itâll be lovely going to the 15thcentury pub over the road and there are folk concerts and carol concerts right by our house,â says Jack who plans to use the courtyard garden to concentrate on herbs so Lucy can look out of the kitchen window and use what I grow. I normally grow mint and sage, but Iâd like to try growing coriander and dill too.â
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Islington Faces is celebrating Jack and Lucy in this interview thanks to the suggestion of the Quill Street Allotment Association. At the Allotment Associationâs recent Harvest Supper in Gillespie Park, chair Annie Monaghan and members awarded them their highest accolade â Life Presidency of the Allotment Association. Itâs well deserved. Jack is a terrific grower. Heâs highly intelligent, a gifted painter and has also been an art history teacher. During the interview Jack quotes French and Italian, discusses the work of Jane Jacobs and asks after my family. He is great at surprises, explaining that he went to the countryâs first comprehensive school and then trying to convince me that heâs not green-fingered.
Lucy is a fantastic cook putting their produce to good use and cooking and baking for allotment events.
Islington Faces meets this lovely couple, both in their 80s, in their dining room â Jack sitting on a wooden stool, and Lucy in a comfy chair with a view of the Welsh dresser where many of her handmade plates are displayed. The room is full of books and a large bunch of heavenly scented flowers from Miss Pem (at 223 Blackstock Road), bought by Jack to celebrate Lucyâs birthday.
So how did this couple, who had raised their three children in Newcastle while Jack taught at Newcastle upon Tyne polytechnic (now Northumbria university), end up in this corner of Islington? Jack explains: âI became Type 1 Diabetic, and insulin dependent but with wonderful NHS care in Newcastle and London I soon revived. I was granted a sabbatical year from Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic to study for an MA at Essex University, Colchester, on European illustrated magazines around 1900, which made us both fall back in love with central London.â
Deciding where to move was solved by their daughter who was studying at Middlesex University. âShe was on a 19 bus and rang later to say, âI think Iâve seen the house youâd love, no one else would like it, but youâll love it!â It was next to a very busy flower shop and a stall out on to the pavement. I made an appointment and waited in the rain for an hour for the estate agent â having come 300 miles to meet him. The flower seller (Lil) came out and challenged me. She said âWhat are you loitering for?â When I explained she gave me a big black umbrella. We moved in. It was lovely to live next to a flower shop but when Lil retired her niece took over the shop but then she discovered she was allergic to chrysanthemums, so couldnât do the funeral flowers, so it was then sold. It is now a vet with very neighbourly staff,â says Jack.
They bought the house in 1988 and soon Jack was exploring the area, often drawing in the newly open Gillespie Park, and expertly discovering all sorts of history about this little corner of Islington.
âIâd go to a tube station and Iâd do a spiral walk to get to know the area. The spiral from Finsbury Park station took me to brand new, desert like Gillespie Park. The lovely warden, Ray, was there. I remember ash piles, some saplings and a plastic lined pond that looked so natural. I was sitting drawing, thinking weâll never be able to afford to live in this area. That day a tiny man came up to me and said to me do you know where you are? He explained that this was Stevens Ink factory â then I realised that what I thought was beautiful railway architecture was in fact the remnants of the Victorian ink factory, and the little man said to me âItâs where Virginia and Vanessa and all their cronies got their scribbling ink for freeâ because he thought their father owned the factory. The Woolfs’ father, of course, was Sir Leslie Stephen, the factory was actually owned by Dr Henry Stephens and then his son Henry Inky Stephens (see this website for more info). Then he disappeared. I never saw him again.â
No wonder Jack was entranced by Gillespie Park.
Jack & Lucyâs favourite Islington places
- Jack: âEverywhere of course! We love Chapel Market as itâs where we bought the things we didnât have on the allotment. Also itâs pure Jane Jacobs (a thriving community), with little shops all along the street. If I need a battery watch, then I go to a tiny jewellers thatâs been there apparently for three generations.
- Lucy:Â I went to art classes and taught at whatâs now City & Islington college on Blackstock Road. Itâs a shame that theyâve closed the pottery and all the crafts. Jack:âItâs so bad they closed it. When I taught ceramic design, our students included some who had special needs but were often highly gifted craftspeople.â
- Lucy:âPottery is my craft, I trained with Robert Fournier first and then Daphne Carnegy. I can do everything at home except kiln firing but I prefer to work with other people. Because Iâm moving to a tiny house Iâm giving our pottery books to Claytime Pottery Studios at 168 Blackstock Road.â
- Jack:âOne of the things about this area is itâs so rich culturally. Thereâs such an ethnic mix on Blackstock Road. Itâs amazing how the grocery shops have survived and Sainsburyâs has adjusted to the area so itâs like a local village shop. The micro economics of many small businesses enrich boroughs in big cities and provide a variety of services.
- Jack:âAl Baraka has beautiful French bread and wonderful humous and lovely olives and much else to buy.
- Jack:Â âWe donât eat out a lot, but when we do, we tend to go to that French restaurant, Sacre Coeur at 18 Theberton Street or to Lara in 16 Blackstock Road.
âLucy and I wanted a plot on the old Gillespie allotments, but we thought it was unlikely weâd get one. I was doing a painting of the gates, I thought of them as the gates of heaven, when allotment chief Jimmy OâDonaldâs wife, Lil, saw me sketching. I asked her if there was any chance of getting an allotment. She asked me if I spoke Italian, saying âOur gardeners are Italian, from Naples, Sicily and north Italy, but they are land hungry and always quarrelling and fighting over the footpaths. Could you come to the AGM and translate?â
Luckily Jack did know some Italian, poured salve on to the allotment holders at the AGM and was introduced to a Jamaican man who said he was very happy for me to have a quarter of his allotment. Those old allotments had lovely soil so I immediately put plants in.â
The Gillespie Park allotments were closed when British Rail, which owned the land, sold the freehold to Islington Council. The area was then dividedup between Gillespie Park, the Parkland Walk extension, Quill Street â the new social housing development â and 15 allotments. But it took a long time, and steady pressure by Jack and others, to get the new, much hillier allotment site opened.Â When it did the gardeners were bitterly disappointed to see that the imported soil was terrible and that there were electric cables trailing across the area to a house which had been squatted.
To celebrate the opening of the new allotments campaigners and the allotment holders held a blessing of the plots. Jack explains: âIâm not religious at all but Rev Steven Coles from St Thomasâ and Father George Haines blessed the land. I read from the Old Testament the bit about âgrow your ownâ in the book of Isaiah. It was so lovely it was positively pagan. Even though the imported soil was poor, within a few weeks there was manna from heaven in the form of chard which had somehow blown from the nearby Greek, Italian and Caribbean gardens and seeded itself.â And the gardeners worked hard to improve it too.Â Jack claims he always remembers another plant gift from one of those early allotment holders, borage plants. âThey reseeded and reseeded so we never had to sow them. Iâd pick the blue flowers and put in ice cubes or use them in salads and I know the Italians would wilt the young Borage leaves and serve with pasta, but I never saw the seeds!â
Jack and Lucy are super skilled gardeners and found that N4 soil was particularly good for some crops: âWe grew potatoes, onions, beans. Chard grows very well. Sorrel grows like a weed and yet it is delicious. Our sorrel is years old. I save seed and plant rows of it, it gets stronger every year.â
As for improving the soil at Quill Street, that has come about through the allotment holders enriching it with many back-breaking loads of manure and compost. Jack and Lucyâs plot is now a perfect growing mix.
During the early 2000s (the noughties) the Quill Street allotment holders generously shared their know-how and bounty at the annual Gillespie Festival (held on the second weekend of September for many years). They also produced a recipe book full of paintings and drawings which he modestly remembers as âa little allotment book to share recipes, Urban Fare.â Two recipes are reprinted here â sorrel soup from Jack and brambly jelly from Lucy.
âIn the 1990s I was challenged to produce an exhibition of Rural Islington. I soon found an abundance of motifs to paint in Gillespie grasslands, Barnsbury (with its big squares and secret wood), the canal banks, Olden Gardens and so many green surprises to draw, paint and print,â remembers Jack. The selling show was at North Gallery, 96 Gillespie Road, managed by Ana, and saw many locals buy some of the green Islington scenes Jack captured with such character.
History repeats itself on the allotments: which is how Jack and Lucy have been assisted on their plot by their friend Sallie Aprahamian, who now co-directs Poldarkâ a lovely link to their new home in Cornwall.
Itâs clear that many people will miss Jack and Lucy when they leave Islington. Islington Faces says thank you so much for all youâve done for the area, and especially the campaign to get those allotments reopened. No wonder Jack is affectionately known as the king of the allotment â and Life President.
Brambly jelly (Lucyâs recipe)
- 2lb blackberries
- 2lb Bramley cook apples
- Half pint water
- Sugar as required
- Wash and drain blackberries
- Wash apples and slice without peeling or coring them.
- Put fruit and water in a large saucepan and cook gently until tender, stirring to a mushy consistency with a wooden spoon.
- Strain through a muslin bag left to drip overnight into the pan you will be using to make the jelly.
- Measure the juice and add 1lb of sugar to each pint of juice.
- Add the sugar and simmer, stirring gently untl the sugar is all dissolved.
- Boil rapidly without stirring until the juice wrinkles when you pour a spoonful on to a cold plate.
- Skim off any impurities on the surface, then pot and seal.
- Yield about 5lb.
- Make sure you use a large saucepan for boiling the jelly as it rises to the top of the pan at a full rolling boil.
- A knob of butter on the jelly before you ski it melts and sends the scum to the edge of the pan where it is easier to remove.
- If you donât have the odd yard or so of butter muslin to hand, a clean old pillowcase does the job.
Sorrel soup (Jackâs recipe)
The beauty of growing sorrel is that you can use it very fresh in salads and sauces as well as soup. This delicious summer soup, when sorrel is plentiful in our gardens (if difficult to find in shops) has a surprisingly refreshing yet warm flavour. The French call it health soup (potage santĂ©) able to cure everything, even a broken heart. Try it!
- 1 and a half pounds potatoes
- 8oz trimmed sorrel (stalks removed)
- 6oz chopped white onions (or green tops of leeks or shallots)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 tablespoons of olive or corn oil
- 1oz butter
- 1 and a half pints chicken or veg stock
- Milk to taste
- Seasoning to taste
- Peel and chop potatoes and keep in water to avoid discolouration
- In a large saucepan melt the butter in the oil
- Gently fry garlic, onions, leeks or shallots (or a combination of all three, why not?) until tender
- Add the sorrel leaves and fry gently. They will turn into khaki coloured sludge but donât lose heart, it all comes right in the end. Add the stock and potatoes and cook until potatoes are tender. Puree in a blender or rub through a sieve
- Add milk to the consistency if you like, and season to taste.
Using the green parts of onions and leeks intensifies the colour of this soup
Over to you
If youâd like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. Thank you to Annie Monaghan for suggesting this interview. If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles orÂ Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola